As terrible as COVID-19 is, it has created space and opportunity to discuss the topic of Mental Health in the Black Community. Being locked down under quarantine has forced us to have silent conversations with ourselves and look intentionally in the mirror to see if we are able to recognize and love the image that stares back at us. For some, COVID-19 and quarantine has made us introspective, more loving and more compassionate towards ourselves. For others, it has made us relive our worst memories and trauma, increased our anxiety and left us with so much vulnerability that we subconsciously covered up with 40 hour work weeks, socializing with friends, and constant travel.
I knew my mother was a little bit “different” growing up. She was brought up in a strictly religious household and as a result, she raised my brother, my sister and I as God-fearing Christians. As a child, I was obedient. I didn’t question why we had to go to church every Sunday, why we had to drink wine that symbolized the blood of Jesus and eat bread that represented his body. It was just something we did because my parents–mostly my mom– groomed us this way from the very beginning of our existence that we thought everyone did the same as us.
My mom would pray to God religiously. I can remember at times when we would form conversations and she would tell me that she was praying and God spoke to her. My smile would mask my confusion and I would just nod, brushing the comment off–attributing it to her deeply grounded religious background. This was my mom. She always held it together, looked out for her children so much so that she would often forget about herself because somewhere down the line, she was taught that was the right thing to do.
I had moved out to go to college and ended up moving back home shortly after my graduation. I didn’t realize something was off until I became pregnant. I kept the sex of the baby a secret for my gender reveal and I made sure I tried not to hint or give any details that might lead them to make an accurate guess.
My mom and I were in Macy’ shopping, and I was about 8 months pregnant at this time. The sales clerk checked us out and she asked me in normal fashion what I was having. I accidentally slipped out that I was having a boy. My mom heard and she said, “I knew it. I spoke to God. That’s what he said you were having.” It was the look in the cashier’s eyes that got me. Shook me. She looked at my mother–my deeply religious, God fearing mother–as if something was wrong with her. The concern in her eyes had matched what I was feeling all these years and I knew that my mom’s talks with God were not stemming just from religion, but from something deeper. Something even God couldn’t cure on his own.
By the time, we left Macys- I was in tears. Silent tears. My mom was too distracted to notice. We parted ways and I ended up getting on the bus. It was just me, my protruding stomach and tears rolling down my eyes. I don’t know if it was the hormones, the awkward exchange between my mom and the cashier or just the hard confirmation that there was something more to my mom’s religious habits. Maybe it was all of it, and somehow I knew that this was just the beginning.
I had my mom committed about 2 years after my son was born.
Our relationship had pretty much been strained since the incident at Macy’s. I tried to distance myself from her as much as possible but still maintain that mother/daughter relationship while being a new parent. During those two years, my mom became very quiet, reclusive and just distant. I mean she was there. We were living in the same house, but she at times she wasn’t. Her presence was felt but her mind was clearly somewhere else. She developed this idea that she was being haunted by the devil. The devil was trying to harm her and she was in fear of being attacked.
It started with the lights.
We had a beautiful chandelier in the living room. It made such a statement when anyone walked in. But the light bulbs were flickering. One day I came home, and the chandelier was on the floor, broken. My mom suspected that’s how the demons were communicating with her. Then, came the dining room lights. After that, she started breaking the door frame because she was scared that they might enter and she wanted it repaired but couldn’t afford the repairs so she took it upon herself to get the job done. I came home and found her hammering away. I remember her being so passionate while she was digging and digging into the door frame as if her problems would be reduced with each pound. I now understand–3 years later– that it was not passion my mother was wielding. It was fear.
I didn’t say anything. I just thought she was acting “weird”. At the time, I forced myself to believe that once she was done with yet another act of her getting rid of the demons, she would be fine. She didn’t get the frame repaired until a year later.
Still, it wasn’t enough for her. She decided that leaving her home would protect her. When I thought she was working, she was spending her time somewhere else. When I would ask her where she was going, she would tell me to church. Then her daily visits to church turned into night visits to church. Then, it turned into her visiting places just to visit. I tried to meet her at a restaurant because she refused to come home. When I went to meet her, she had a small suitcase for her clothes. We sat down to eat. I could tell she missed a few baths. Her clothes were disheveled. Unkempt. And when I looked into her eyes, I knew she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking through me. She didn’t see me as her daughter at that time or else she would’ve seen the pain, concern and heartbreak etched in all the corners of my face. As much as I tried to convince her to come home, she just brushed me off as overreacting. It didn’t matter if she was spending nights sleeping at the airport. To her, it was better than being home.
When she finally decided to come home things got worse. It was a few days before Thanksgiving and my brother and sister came to visit.
It was about 1:00am in the morning when I heard shouting. I went downstairs to see my mom sitting in the dining room with the light on. She was talking to herself. When I asked her what was wrong, she started to get angry with me. She told me that I wasn’t safe. My son wasn’t safe and there was someone coming to kill us. She said it was a matter of life and death.
I knew this was the breaking point. My breaking point. My sister and I called 911 and we drove with her in the ambulance and tried to calm her down. We told her everything would be ok and there was nothing wrong with getting help. My mother was committed to the psychiatric ward for about two weeks. She was diagnosed with “delusional schizophrenia”.
My mom didn’t like the diagnosis at all. She refused to believe she had a mental illness. She couldn’t be “crazy” because that was a “white person’s illness”. She was black. She was born and raised in the Caribbean and she grew up learning that God was the only answer–the only solution–to get her through whatever she was experiencing.
After her 2 weeks, equipped with external therapy sessions and medication my Mom was coming back to herself. She was coming back to who she was—who we remembered her as. We started taking trips together: Paris, Cuba, Maryland, D.C. She liked trips, road trips especially because she liked to be driven. We never talked about her experience in the psych ward. It didn’t seem like either of us knew how to approach the subject. My mom probably felt too much shame and embarrassment to speak openly about her experience. So we kept it tucked away and labeled it as just a “hard time” she went through.
I admit that I wasn’t following up with my mom’s therapy and medication since she was released. She was functioning. She was going to work, and she seemed happy. She was busy. She rarely talked about the demons that were whispering to her. It seemed like they just disappeared. But I now realize that she didn’t talk about them because she was scared we would commit her again.
And then, about three months ago, COVID-19 hit right around the same time my mother had knee surgery. She suffered from severe arthritis and had to get a knee replacement. Once she was discharged from the rehab center, she came home and had to stay inside every day. No work, decreased mobility, and no church was enough to send my mom back deep into her psychosis.
Once she was able to walk, she began going outside and ignored the fact that she was putting herself at risk for COVID-19. All the stores were closed, so I never knew where she would go and I didn’t trust her responses when I asked.
At night, she would wake up at 4:00 am and start singing hymns. Her singing was so loud, so disturbing that she would wake me up. This continued for days and I went without sleep because of her nightly wailing. She became irritable, angry that no one believed that she was in danger.
I couldn’t teach remote learning to my students. I cancelled my meetings and laid in bed for days. I started taking sleeping pills at night. It started with two, and the more she sang, the more I took the sleeping pills so I could sleep soundly. I realized I was falling into a depression when I took six sleeping pills during the day because I just wanted to sleep. When my mom asked my son where I was and what I was doing, he told her I was “sick”. She said ok and then left to go outside with no idea of how much she was affecting me. I felt like I was dying. I had no help.
It got so bad that I had a nervous breakdown. I could remember my best friend coming over to stay with me because she understood what it was like having a family member with mental issues. She surprised me by sending flowers. The flowers were such a beautiful gesture that it made me cry because I realized my mom’s mental illness was driving me into a dark place. I had another best friend call me and listen to me breakdown crying out of fear, anger, embarrassment, and pain. And I remember the most important advice she would repeat to me over and over: “It won’t be like this forever. This will pass.” And I held onto her words like a buoy in a seastorm.
She gave me the number to NYC Well and put me in contact with her cousin who was all too familiar with my situation. Her brother had a mental illness. I was so relieved to speak to and surround myself with people who understood and knew what to do.
I did my research on delusional schizophrenia and how to help them cope with the disorder. I joined NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and was paired with a great mentor who has nothing short of understanding and supportive. We talk two times a month and share our experiences of growing up with our mothers having mental illnesses. She was White. I was Black, but color didn’t stop us from empathizing and sharing our experiences. We were just two women who knew what it was like to care and love someone who had a mental illness.
I also reached out to some friends who referred me to a therapist. I now have sessions 1 time a week to help me cope with my mom and understand her mental illness. I bought a mental health journal and Black Pain: It Only Looks Like We’re Not Hurting by Terrie Williams. In the book, she speaks about her own depression and provides statistics, anecdotals from other Black men and women who have suffered from depression during their lives. And she also includes a list of resources for readers who are struggling with their mental health.
My mom and I are currently working on our relationship. I’m more understanding of what she’s going through. I have to suppress my initial instinct to become frustrated and tell her what she’s experiencing is not real, but I know now that she will never believe me. She is experiencing something that is true only to her. It’s futile and emotionally draining to try to realize she has a serious mental health issue.
I’m writing this because there needs to be more voices speaking out in support of Black Mental Health and we need to understand that mental health. Too often, the Black community shames mental health and believe God is the absolute and only solution.
I’ve witnessed my mother praying and praying every day, sometimes multiple times per day asking Him to help her, and the more her symptoms manifest, the more hyper her praying becomes. God is important and He is embedded in the Black way of life, but we also have to understand the mental health knows no color. There needs to be more awareness on how we can treat these mental health issues instead of just handing it to God and waiting for Him to step in.
We also need to start a conversation about mental health because I know that there are a lot of people who could benefit or relate to my story. Some of us might even have the Uncle or Aunt who was just “off” without even realizing that there might be more to their abnormal behavior.
Mental Health Issues are present and thriving in the Black Community. We need to continue creating better platforms and sharing our stories instead of keeping everything “in the house” which does neither party any good. We need to stop harboring and eating pain and start sharing it in order real healing to begin. And I truly hope this article serves as a platform for motivation to those who share similar experiences.